Los Angeles: Shangri La, Past and Present

By Kitty Pilgrim

I glimpse an elaborate stone villa on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looks like the set of the movie Jane Eyre, but it is relatively new, built in the Jazz Age.  Greystone Mansion is a faux English estate, solid and elegant, surrounded by 18 acres of manicured gardens.  Once a private residence for an oil magnate, Edward L. Doheny, the baronial edifice was constructed in 1927 and was used by his family as a country retreat.  Now it serves as a historic landmark, and it no longer sits in isolation – the manor is now in the luxurious enclave of Beverly Hills.

As I drive up, the solid stone house with a gray slate roof sits very incongruously among the lighter colored architecture that surrounds it. I park my car in the visitor lot and walk towards the house, down an elegant Cyprus tree-lined walkway.

I have some vague hope to take a tour but at the courtyard entrance I hit a disappointing snag. A small sign reads:  "Graystone Mansion is closed for an event". I inquire if by any chance the grounds are open. No. Today is the day the "Friends of Graystone" – the philanthropic donors of the historic estate – have a private party. I have to come back another day. I turn away only to be called back by an intrepid committeewoman.

"You could tour the house if you would like to become a 'Friend of Graystone'."

One insignificant personal check later, I am invited to the afternoon event.

Inside the towering entrance hall, the Beverly Hills ladies have arrived in flowing silk dresses and tunics, some wearing picture hats. Suddenly I am in the middle of a party that Jay Gatsby might have attended.

There are refreshments with certain LA exoticism – cucumber water, and ice water infused with watermelon juice – delicious on the extraordinarily hot day, tea sandwiches and pastries.  Guides stand in the corridors of the house explaining the history.   Most astonishingly, there is a room where a mysterious murder was committed, much of the puzzle still left unsolved. As I enter the Conservatory, I am suddenly in a game of CLUE. And along comes a docent – Colonel Mustard, compete with rotund physique and moustache who offers to show me the bowling alley in the basement, and the speakeasy (hidden bar) that is concealed behind a paneled wall.

As the history of the family is told to me in dribs and drabs, it strikes me again how much of Los Angeles is built on fantasy. Here the life of an ordinary American mimics the heraldic pomp of an English lord. The family even shot game from the balcony of the drawing room, which must have been quite a sight. I get the feeling that this house was filled with playacting – every room seems like an elaborate set.

Later as I drive around Los Angeles, my sense of otherworldliness increases. Billboards proclaim the latest movie releases in superlative language. Everything seems larger than life and I am seduced by the trendy glamor. Ferraris and other high-octane sports cars pass me with a blur on the highway, downtown skyscrapers gleam, and Bel Air, and Beverly Hills seem extraordinarily lush – behind gated wrought-iron grilles white mansions are set off by velvet lawns and unfamiliar flora.

Out on the Pacific coast highway, the chicane of road towards Malibu is breathtakingly beautiful. Just the pure seduction of driving along with little to do, is so different from my rushed days in New York where my time is spent literally in a more pedestrian way.

After a day or so in Los Angeles, I am completely changed.  Relaxed, more physically aware.  I book lunches and dinners with friends.  Life slows down.  I am here on book tour, but after my appearances, I go to popular watering holes: AOC in West Hollywood for lunch, Nobu and Nikita out on the beach in Malibu for dinner.  Even the food is different here:  there are no visible carbs on either the tables or the waistlines.

A few days before I have to leave, I have an appointment to tour the famous Getty Villa, in the Pacific Palisades. Built by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, it is a museum dedicated to artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome.  I want to research another novel; my main character is an archaeologist.

The Getty Villa is like stepping back in time.  It is a faithful reproduction of a Roman house – Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum outside of Naples.  Again this is movie-set kind of construction – all illusion, with touches of gilt.  Having toured the ruins of many a real Roman villa, this reproduction is so authentic, one almost expects Marcus Aurelius to come wandering through the tablinum in a toga – or at least a fabulously handsome actor in the role.  The real artifacts are breathtaking, sculpture and fragments of ancient life; oil lamps, jewelry, pottery.  The collection gives me great inspiration for another novel. Later, eating lunch on the cliff side terrace café of the museum, I am carried away by the beauty of the setting, high above the Pacific. The blue shimmering water might be the Bay of Naples, the scrubby vegetation not unlike that which grows on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

Dreaming in the sun, I try to sum up all I have experienced in Los Angles. Although I have only been here less than a week, it feels like I have entered a new life. I will be going back to the East Coast with regret. Los Angeles has seduced my senses.

But what exactly is different, apart from the climate?  I arrive at a few inchoate conclusions. In Los Angeles, very little is permanent. All is constantly changing, morphing with current fashion. Yet the desire for permanence is palpable when you consider the faux Roman villas and English country estates.   But Los Angeles revolves around an image on a screen in a darkened room.  Handprints in concrete outside a Chinese Theater do nothing to change that.  But even these tangible vestiges of past stars – Sonjia Henie, Myrna Loy, John Barrymore – are trod over by new generation of tourists who favor box office blockbusters, with little knowledge of the Hollywood golden years. It's the impermanence that gives Los Angeles its appeal. There is always something new, sublime and exciting around the corner. A place of great natural beauty and enchantment, where fantasy is real. It is Shangri-La. •

Kitty Pilgrim is an award-winning international journalist and author of romantic thrillers.  Her latest novel is The Stolen Chalice, published by Scribner.

Resident Magazine